|967: Forster-Tuncurry Presbyterian, Forster, New South Wales, Australia|
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Mystery Worshipper: Charlie Jethro.
The church: Forster-Tuncurry Presbyterian, Forster, New South Wales, Australia.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church of Australia.
The building: A simple wooden chapel, painted off-white, built out of local eucalypt wood at the end of the 19th century. Inside there is a red-and-black-carpeted central aisle leading to a slightly raised but very small open chancel. There is a lectern but no room for a pulpit. The walls are paneled with fibreboard. Each window has six panels of glass, some coloured, but it would be really stretching it to call them stained glass windows. In keeping with the modesty of the building, the lights are of the fluorescent tube variety.
The church: The building was originally the local Anglican church, but they moved to a new building over 10 years ago and the present congregation took over. From the announcements it was apparent that there is an active youth ministry and a number of outreach/community service activities, including visting local retirement homes and hostels and sponsoring low-key evangelistic lunches for women who live in the area.
The neighbourhood: Forster is on the mid-north coast of New South Wales and is a favoured place for both holiday-makers and retirees. It is at the mouth of Wallis Lake, one of the world's largest estuary complexes, and has great fishing and miles of beautiful beaches. The church itself is in an old and quiet residential area, which is something of a contrast to the beach and lakeside mansions in the area.
The cast: The teaching pastor (minister) was on holiday, so the service was run by the congregation. Tom Davey, the session clerk, led the prayers, and George Athas, a visting theological student, preached the sermon.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
80 people or so in a church that can take 100 at a pinch. All ages were represented, from young children through to the old.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, I was greeted with a warm smile and handshake at the front door, and then when I sat down a couple took their place next to me, introduced themselves in a natural and unobtrusive way, and made me welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
I sat in a comfortable (broad and not too upright) pew, although there were some bright orange padded chairs at the back that looked like they first saw use in a 1970s doctor's surgery.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Friendly and relaxed. Regular members greeted each other quietly and made the visitors welcome. No music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning everyone. Our pastor Peter is away on holiday so we will make do without him."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The order of service was on a printed sheet. A few New International Version Bibles were in the pews, and all songs and hymns were projected from an overhead projector onto a large irregular hexagonal sloping part of the ceiling. Very unusual but it worked in this cramped space.
What musical instruments were played?
Mother and son on electric piano and violin, respectively. There was a drum kit, but I gather it only gets a workout in the youth service.
Did anything distract you?
The bold carpet in the central aisle was hard to miss. Also, the front of the church is only a few square metres and was quite cluttered. I was left wondering what they could do without.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely happy and joyful, but not clappy. This is "rural Australia meets the beach," so it is relaxed, informal and understated. This Mystery Worshipper chose correctly when he chose to dress in short trousers, sandals and a t-shirt to attend the service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 It was about five minutes longer than it needed to be. A bit of editing would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The preacher spoke clearly and helpfully, and did a very good job considering he was a visting student who was helping out whilst the regular preacher was on holiday.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, he moved from a discussion of the temple in Old Testament times to the new temple. Now the people are the temple and God resides in us by his Holy Spirit.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The loud and joyful congregational singing, the unaffected simplicity and sincerity with which the session clerk led the prayers, and the warmth and friendliness of the welcome.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
80 people in a small, un-air-conditioned, uninsulated church in mid summer with only a couple of small fans was not quite like sizzling in the flames of... er... the other place, but I am expecting the new Jerusalem to be more temperate.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I waited to leave the church, people immediately started chatting to me. As I left the church, the elders also had a chat and then I was ushered over to a stall for coffee and cake and again was engaged in friendly chat. I think you would have to try incredibly hard to be ignored here. And the joy was that these people seem to be happy committed Christians for whom being friendly and welcoming comes naturally.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea or filter coffee in a foam cup, with some cakes and biscuits. Neither a highlight nor a lowlight of my visit.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 Despite my Anglican background, if I could live in the area, rather than 300 kilometers away, this would be my regular church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. Here there seems be be a sincere sense that they are part of a global church, rather than a church unto themselves. The singing was uplifting, and so many in the congregagtion seemed to embody the joy that comes from knowing Jesus.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The unaffected joyfulness of the congregation.